Joaquin Carrillo Murrieta (sometimes spelled Murieta or Murietta) supposedly was born in 1829.
The place of Murrieta’s birth is disputed. He was either born in Álamos in the northwestern state of Sonora, Mexico, or in Quillota, Chile (near Valparaiso).
Murrieta reportedly migrated to California in 1849 to seek his fortune in the California Gold Rush.
Today, controversy surrounds the figure of Joaquin Murrieta: who he was, what he did, and many of his life’s events. This is summarized by the words of historian Susan Lee Johnson:
“So many tales have grown up around Murrieta that it is hard to disentangle the fabulous from the factual. There seems to be a consensus that Anglos drove him from a rich mining claim, and that, in rapid succession, his wife was raped, his half-brother lynched, and Murrieta himself horse-whipped. He may have worked as a monte dealer for a time; then, according to whichever version one accepts, he became either a horse trader and occasional horse thief, or a bandit.”
The Robin Hood of El Dorado became famous when “Yellow Bird” (John Rollin Ridge) wrote his 1854 dime novel “The Life and Adventures of Joaquin Murieta.” John Rollin Ridge was the grandson of Cherokee leader Major Ridge. He claimed to have been in California during the Gold Rush and to have learned of Murrieta there. His fictional biography contributed to Murrieta’s legend, especially as it was translated in various European languages.
So, Joaquin Murrieta’s story goes like this;
Murrieta and his wife encountered extreme competition and racism in the rough California mining camps.
While mining for gold one day, Murrieta and his wife supposedly were attacked by American miners jealous of his success. They allegedly beat him and raped his wife.
Murrieta then began to attack settlers and wagon trains in California.
Murrieta’s gang was reported to have killed up to 28 Chinese and 13 White-Americans.
By 1853, the California state legislature did in fact consider Murrieta enough of a criminal to list him as one of the so-called “Five Joaquins” on a bill passed in May 1853. The legislature authorized hiring for three months a company of 20 California Rangers, veterans of the Mexican-American War, to hunt down “Joaquin Botellier, Joaquin Carrillo, Joaquin Muriata [sic], Joaquin Ocomorenia, and Joaquin Valenzuela,” and their banded associates.
On May 11, 1853, California Governor John Bigler signed an act to create the “California State Rangers”, to be led by Captain Harry Love (a former Texas Ranger and Mexican War veteran).
The state paid the California Rangers $150 a month, and promised them a $1,000 governor’s reward if they captured the wanted men.
On July 25, 1853, a group of Rangers encountered a band of armed Mexican men near Arroyo de Cantua near the Coast Range Mountains on the Tulare plains.
In the confrontation, three of the Mexicans were killed. They claimed one was Joaquin Murrieta, and another Manuel Garcia, also known as Three-Fingered Jack, one of his most notorious associates. Two others were captured.
Today, a California Historical Landmark plaque (#344) near three large rocks in the foothills southwest of Cantua Creek Bridge, marks the approximate site of the incident.
The above CHL plaque reads as follows:
“Arroyo de Cantua – Headquarters of notorious bandit Joaquin Murieta, killed here July 25, 1853 by posse of state Rangers led by Captain Harry Love. Terrorized mining camps and stage operations during his career.”
As proof of Murrieta’s death, the Rangers cut off his head as well as Three-Fingered Jack’s hand and preserved them in a jar of alcohol to bring to the authorities for their reward.
Officials displayed the jar in Mariposa County, Stockton, and San Francisco.
The Rangers took the display throughout California; spectators could pay $1 to see the relics.
Seventeen people, including a Catholic priest, signed affidavits identifying the head as Murrieta’s.
Harry Love and his Rangers received the $1,000 reward money.
Then, in August 1853, an anonymous Los Angeles-based man wrote to the San Francisco Alta California Daily that Love and his Rangers murdered some innocent Mexican mustang catcher and bribed people to swear out affidavits.
Later that fall, California newspapers carried letters by a few men claiming that Capt. Love had failed to display Murrieta’s head at the mining camps, but this proved not to be true.
On May 28, 1854, the California State Legislature voted to reward the Rangers with another $5,000 for their defeat of Murrieta and his band.
However, 25 years later, other myths began to form.
In 1879, O. P. Stidger was reported to have heard Murrieta’s sister say that the displayed head was not her brother’s.
At around the same time, numerous sightings were reported of Murrieta as an old man.
These were never confirmed, and his preserved head was destroyed during the 1906 San Francisco Earthquake and subsequent fire.
Murrieta’s nephew, known as Procopio, also became one of California’s most notorious bandits of the 1860s and 1870s; he purportedly wanted to exceed the reputation of his uncle.
Later, historian Frank Latta, wrote in his 1980 book, Joaquín Murrieta and His Horse Gangs , that Murrieta was from Hermosillo in the northern Mexican state of Sonora and that he had a paramilitary band made up of relatives and friends. Latta documented that they regularly engaged in illegal horse trade with Mexico, and had helped Murrieta kill at least six of the Americans who had attacked him and his wife.
It is also possible that Joaquin Murrieta was the inspiration for the fictional character of Zorro, the lead character in the five-part serial story, “The Curse of Capistrano”, written by Johnston McCulley and published in 1919 in a pulp-fiction magazine.
Today, the “Association of Descendants of Joaquin Murrieta” is devoted to putting forth that Murrieta was not a “gringo eater”, but instead that “He wanted to retrieve the part of Mexico that was lost at that time in the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo.”
Now WE know em